By the time you reach the finale of Tex Murphy: Overseer, there's no doubt you'll have had your fill of adventuring. There's probably 15 or 20 hours of gameplay here even if you solve every puzzle as quickly as possible, and I shudder to think how long it might take to finish if you tried to play the entire game without any hints at all.
But there is such a thing as diminishing returns, and Overseer is a prime example. It's one thing to design an adventure game that'll take 30 or 40 hours (or more) to complete, but it's quite difficult to design one that'll have you as interested in that 40th hour of play as you were in the fourth - and for a variety of reasons, Overseer doesn't quite manage to pull it off. That doesn't mean you won't get your money's worth out of Overseer, but when all is said and done, you'll probably feel more sated than satisfied.
In this fifth installment in the Tex Murphy series, you once again step into the gumshoes of Tex Murphy, a private investigator in postapocalyptic San Francisco. Up until now, Tex has been portrayed as a down-on-his-luck PI desperately in need of cash (and usually a bath and a shave), a private dick plucked from the noir novels of Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett and plopped into a futuristic world of decay, mutants, and rampant crime.
In this prequel, though, we see a Tex we've only heard about in earlier games: a clean-cut rookie PI whose ideals and principles haven't yet been tested by demon rum, lost love, and the harsh realities of the business. The entire game - or at least the parts in which you're really playing - is a flashback to his first case, with the grizzled Tex we all know and love recounting the story to his girlfriend Chelsee (first introduced in Under a Killing Moon, the third Tex Murphy game).
For a greenhorn PI who sincerely wants to help people just as much as he wants to make a decent living, there couldn't be a better way to start than with this case. Things begin routinely enough, almost like an episode of Barnaby Jones or Cannon: A sultry dame named Sylvia Linsky is convinced that her father Carl's suicide was really a cold-blooded murder, and she is desperate for Tex to help her prove it.
You've got achingly little to go on at first, but as you start poking around you'll begin to uncover leads - leads that take you into a web of cloudy intrigue and double-dealings that will soon have you convinced that no one can be trusted. And long before you learn the real reason behind Carl Linsky's death, you'll stumble across a ring of conspirators whose goal is nothing less than total world domination.
Overseer uses the same game engine that Access created for Under a Killing Moon and The Pandora Directive. Video clips are used during interrogations and expository scenes, with the first part of conversations - where you're trying to convince someone to talk to you - handled with a dialogue tree that lets you choose attitudes rather than specific responses or queries. New names and locations mentioned during conversations are automatically added to Tex's notepad; once you've gotten past the dialogue tree and the source is ready to talk, simply click on a topic in the notepad to ask about it.
There's a lot of video to watch during these scenes - I'd guess there's enough for at least one feature-length movie - so the question of how the acting stacks up is pretty vital. Fortunately, most of it is both professional and convincing, with the most enjoyable performances being turned in by Access Software cofounder Chris Jones as Tex Murphy (his third time playing Tex), Henry Darrow as hard-drinking PI Sony Fletcher, Roger Davis as right-wing gubernatorial candidate Robert Knott, Emmett Grennan as mutant chess fanatic Jorge Valdez, and of course Michael York as entrepreneur J. Saint Gideon. There are a few disappointments in the thespian department, but all in all the acting's at least as good as you'd expect from a high-dollar TV movie.
But the real adventuring in Overseer is done from a first-person viewpoint - dubbed the "VR environment" by Access - that gives you completely unrestricted freedom to scour each locale for clues. We're talking the whole enchilada here, folks. You can look up and down, walk in any direction, examine any object, and even get down to floor level to peek under beds, tables, and desks. Movement is handled via mouse or keyboard, but mouse movement is a slightly awkward affair based on navigation buttons; most gamers will use the keyboard for movement and the mouse to manipulate objects. The interface is slick and functional, with pop-up menus at the edges of the screen for examining and using inventory items, traveling between locations, accessing game utilities, and using mouse-based movement.
In short, Overseer is practically identical in game mechanics to Under a Killing Moon and The Pandora Directive. And that raises a troubling question: Why isn't Overseer as fun or as satisfying as those games were? The answer lies in two areas: performance and puzzles.
Overseer might be one of the first DVD games, but don't get too revved up about it. The only advantages the DVD version has over its five-CD cousin is that you'll see higher-quality video playback and you won't have to swap discs. Further, the only 3D support is for AGP cards, which leaves the hundreds of thousands of us with 3D cards using popular chipsets such as the 3Dfx and Verite pretty much out of luck. To my mind, it's almost inexcusable that Access didn't support at least Direct3D in Overseer; without support for 3D hardware, the CPU has to handle the rendering of 3D objects all by its lonesome, which in turn means that players with lower-end systems will experience some of the choppiest animations since Descent to Undermountain.
I had to reduce the view window to 240x180 and knock the texture quality down to the lowest setting in order to achieve something somewhere between seven and ten frames per second. It's true that my system just barely meets Overseer's minimum requirements - but on the other hand, I'm seeing killer performance in games like Jedi Knight and Quake II because they either support Direct3D or provide native hardware support. And the real kicker here is that Overseer doesn't even look that impressive - better perhaps than Under a Killing Moon, but not noticeably improved over 1996's The Pandora Directive. The bottom line is this: I can't think of a single justifiable reason why this game runs as poorly as it does.
The other big disappointment in Overseer is its puzzles - a real shame, given the fine plot and good acting. I appreciate the inclusion of puzzles requiring you to combine inventory items in creative ways, but at the end of the day it seemed that all I'd done was use keys on doors, passcards on computers, and combined poles, ropes, and wire to either grab hard-to-reach objects or to make an escape. A big bulk of the game involves moving objects to see what's behind them - usually a key or computer passcard - and what should be a challenging and engaging adventure instead becomes more or less a scavenger hunt.
But the real problem with the puzzles is that there's an insane amount of cryptology crammed into this game. It seems that every five minutes you're required to decode messages or number sequences, and before long you feel like Tex should have gotten a job as a code breaker at the CIA instead of as a PI. Sure, a few of them are fun, but with so many coded messages to decipher you get the sneaking suspicion that someone started ladling them on to artificially lengthen the game - perhaps because they knew that 95 percent of gamers wouldn't hesitate to use built-in codes to automatically solve puzzles. (By the way, Access does get my kudos for including the online hint system rather than trying to rake in a few extra bucks off a strategy guide.)
In the end, Overseer feels like a very good movie stuffed into a very average game. Hopefully, Access will focus on making the next Tex Murphy game playable on more gamers' systems - and season it with the sort of puzzles a real private investigator might actually face.